As most of you are aware by now, Sundance 2019 will be premiering a hit piece directed by Dan Reed and sponsored by HBO and UK Channel 4, a four-hour sobfest in which the same two scam artists who recently had their cases against Michael Jackson’s estate and companies thrown out of court-Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck-will claim that they were molested. While trash stories about Michael Jackson have come and gone in the last ten years (most notably since Robson’s sudden about face in 2012) the understandable concern now, both within the fan community and for those who care about justice, is that in this era where the lynch mob mentality of #MeToo and the “Cancel Culture” it has helped spawn is drowning out all voices of reason or due process, this could be one injustice against the name Michael Jackson too many. It is long overdue for this kind of endless defamation to end. I have a post in the works that will analyze the full extent of Michael Jackson’s legacy in the MeToo era. As always, we must keep uppermost in mind four crucial differences between Jackson’s “case” and that of other celebrities who have fallen under the scrutiny of MeToo, namely:
That Michael Jackson, unlike many of these other celebrities, had his full day in court over a decade ago (and to that we must add that this was a court case that put his entire life under intense scrutiny, as it didn’t become “just” about the Arvizo case, but every friendship with every child he had ever known!)
There has never been one bit of actual inculpatory evidence presented against him, even after one of most thorough prosecution investigations on record. In every single instance, it has come down to an accuser’s word against Jackson’s. And now he is not here to defend against such accusations, making these actions all the more reprehensible.
A decade long investigation by the FBI yielded nothing!
The role of race, Hollywood double standards, and how Michael Jackson was used as a scapegoat within the industry to divert attention from the crimes of others (namely one Harvey Weinstein!)
That these allegations have been led by a man who endlessly sang Jackson’s praises as a mentor and guiding light of his life-until he was fired from a prestigious gig directing the Michael Jackson Circus du Soleil show, a loss that cost him millions.
In the meantime, though, please work to voice your disapproval!
There has certainly been no shortage of Michael Jackson news the last few weeks! While I plan on delving into all of these recent developments in due course, I feel it is urgent that I begin with the most timely, since the Oxygen channel’s four part series on high profile celebrity criminal cases, The Jury Speaks, is set to kick off with its opening episode on the O.J. Simpson murder trail on Saturday, July 22, with the Michael Jackson episode following on Sunday, July 23.
Generally, it can be expected that any show purporting to dredge up the 2005 trial can’t be good news-unless, of course, its primary goal is to finally shed some much needed light on the under reported defense side of the case. Since many fans were led to believe that this was indeed going to be the case-or that at the very least, this would be a fair and balanced documentary on the trial, the sword of betrayal that many fans felt, including myself, after viewing the series trailer felt especially eviscerating. Granted, the episode has yet to air and it may not prove to be as bad as the trailer suggests (as usual, the trailer for the series has been designed as salacious click bait, highlighting only the most controversial sound bites of the series) but given the show’s overall premise, coupled with the fact that it appears that the “star” juror from the case to be interviewed will be Raymond Hultman, one of two rogue jurors who later publicly recanted the “Not Guilty” verdicts when bribed with a book and movie deal (neither of which ever materialized), fans have every right to feel outraged-and also every right to feel justifiably concerned with the manner in which Oxygen plans to “re-try” these cases, as this essentially does seem to be the show’s major premise.
So let’s address that premise. The series will cover four cases in which the nation was shocked by “Not Guilty” verdicts-O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, George Zimmerman, and Robert Durst. In each episode, the jurors will discuss details of the cases, as well as why they voted as they did. Since this is essentially just another form of reality TV (i.e, this is for “entertainment” rather than education) we can expect lots of drama and conflict to ensue between the respective jurors as they hash out old (and no doubt personal) battles that are probably best left behind closed doors. At some point (not sure if this will be a feature of each episode or a one-time event to occur at the end of the series) each of the jurors will be asked to vote once again whether they believe the subject to be “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” The idea is something like this: If you had it to do over, would you vote the same way? Yes or no?” This is why I say the show is basically all about putting these subjects on trial all over again. Even though it may well be “for entertainment purposes only” and obviously has no bearing on the verdicts in the real world, the producers’ modus operandi is blatantly obvious-to find out if, given a second chance, along with weighing both old and new “evidence,” (note quotation marks!) these jurors would vote to convict. Obviously, they are betting that many of them will (after all, it wouldn’t make for very compelling drama if they simply said, yep, we got it right the first time).
I can’t speak for the other three trials because I didn’t follow those cases as closely, but for the Michael Jackson case, such a premise could be especially damaging. It’s not that I have any fear of the case being revisited. The facts of the case-a case so blatantly absurd that Mesereau spoke the truth when he said it should never have gone to trial-can certainly still hold up to scrutiny. But that is provided that the facts are presented accurately, that no exculpatory evidence is purposely or accidentally omitted, and that the coverage is not skewered or slanted with an obvious bias in favor of the prosecution’s case. Obviously readers know where I’m going with this. If the trailer and PR articles are any indication, there’s no reason to believe that balance or fairness-or, for that matter, accuracy-is going to play any part in this production. Basically, it would seem that we can expect to see the 2005 media version of the trial-you know, the version that led the ignorant masses in 2005 to assume his guilt because they weren’t inside the courtroom. What’s more, it looks like they plan to bring in the more recent Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck allegations as added fuel to the fire:
But now, after the emergence of new accusers and hard truths about Jackson’s troubled childhood and tragic death, do they stand by their decision today?-excerpted from Oxygen.com.
Well, with Ray Hultman at the helm cheering them on, we need not guess how that is going to fly!
So as you may guess, my concern for this program is the same concern that many fans are sharing right now. It’s not that there is anything to fear from the case being revisited or discussed if done in a factual and educational manner.The 2010 Frozen in Time seminar, for instance, was an excellent example of how the Michael Jackson trial could be deconstructed in a factual and balanced manner for educational purpose.
But I do very much have concerns about the likely possibility that this program is simply going to sensationalize and distort facts to a public that is already woefully under informed, both about this trial and the reasons for its resultant 14 “Not Guilty” verdicts. I am rightfully concerned that their plan is to simply sensationalize the details of the trial for ratings, and that the exculpatory evidence that rightfully exonerated Michael will be either downplayed or, worse, ignored altogether. Michael Jackson fans are no strangers to how the media works, and we know all too well how the media will manipulate, edit and distort to paint the picture they want. Let’s be honest: The premise of this show isn’t simply to reexamine or reevaluate these trials to understand how the jurors got it right, or even “if” they got it right. Rather, it seems purely for the purpose of reopening and exploiting old wounds while egging on the substrative premise that, indeed, the jurors did get it wrong. In every case, they have chosen subjects who were voted guilty in the court of public opinion, and the entire series seems nothing more than a cheesy attempt at further exploiting those perceptions.
The premise is doubly disturbing because the Michael Jackson case, unlike the others, was not a clear case of celebrity acquittal or failure to convict due to some legal loophole or technicality. This was not a case like the Simpson case where one could point to a clear cut motive, or the Zimmerman case in which national outrage had been sparked over the killing of an unarmed teenager (and for whom it was never up for debate that Zimmerman had killed; only his motivation for doing so), or Robert Durst who supposedly even confessed to killing his wife. Although I understand the national cynicism and skepticism that has surrounded many of these high profile acquittals, the simple fact remains that Michael Jackson’s case stands unique in the amount of exculpatory evidence that exonerated him. The many reasons why The People vs. Michael Jackson cannot be put into the same classification as The People vs. O.J. Simpson (or any other high profile celebrity crime cases) is a topic that I touched on in far greater depth in my last Huffington Post piece so I will provide the link to that article in the interest of avoiding the need to repeat myself here. However, the topic of trial-by-media is certainly one that remains relevant. In the wake of even more recent celebrity scandals and controversial verdicts (the mistrial of Bill Cosby and the alleged sex ring scandal of R. Kelley coming to mind) we have seen time and again how the ill informed love to lump Michael Jackson’s name among them, as if they all merely constitute the same category. And always, inevitably, they do so with no preponderance of the actual circumstances and/or differences of the cases. In this era of “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”-a slogan fueled by the tabloid, medialoid, and yellow journalism ethics under which we now operate-we are driven by an ever insatiable thirst for celebrity blood.
The choice of Ray Hultman as the representative juror of the Michael Jackson case should certainly raise some alarms. Although it appears that other members of the jury will be included, it is Hultman’s remarks that were purposely chosen to provide the sound bites on the Jackson segment in the series trailer. Given that there were twelve men and women on the jury, this obviously comes down to which jury members were willing to go on camera-again-after twelve years, to discuss the case.
Eleanor Cook Was Among Six Jurors Interviewed For “Good Morning America”. This Was Her Speaking Before Acquiring Her Promised Book and Movie Deal.
Most of the jurors who served on the Michael Jackson case were humble, ordinary citizens who, after the grueling five month ordeal, simply wanted to return to their lives. That is, all but two who evidently loved the spotlight just a little too much to give it up.
Within two months of the verdict, Ray Hultman and Eleanor Cook had both sought book deals, and the only way they could secure those deals was by delivering controversy. They could only “sell” their stories and continue to milk the celebrity status that the trial had given them by changing their story of Jackson’s case from one of “Not Guilty” to “Guilty.” In August of 2005, both Cook and Hultman gave an exclusive interview to Rita Cosby of MSNBC. This was an AP article of the time that discussed their appearance (added emphasis in red is mine):
2 jurors say they regret Jackson’s acquittal
The Associated Press
Two jurors in the Michael Jackson trial say they now regret voting to acquit the singer of child molestation charges.
Jackson’s defense attorney ridiculed the two, who spoke exclusively with MSNBC’s Rita Cosby, saying it was “time to move on” from the case.
“The bottom line is it makes no difference what they’re saying,” Tom Mesereau told The Associated Press, pointing out the jurors announced their turnaround Monday as they began publicizing book deals.
“Twelve people deliberated and out of that process justice is supposed to result. Now, two months later, these jurors are changing their tunes. They clearly like being on TV,” Mesereau said. “I’m very suspicious.”
Eleanor Cook and Ray Hultman revealed in a televised interview that they believed the singer’s young accuser was sexually assaulted.
“No doubt in my mind whatsoever, that boy was molested,and I also think he enjoyed to some degree being Michael Jackson’s toy,”Cook said on MSNBC’s “Rita Cosby: Live and Direct.”
Their comments will have no bearing on the verdict, which prosecutors cannot appeal.
Threat from jury foreman?Cook and Hultman said they agreed to go along with the other jurors when it became apparent that they would never convict the pop star. The two denied being motivated by money and tried to explain why they were coming forward now.
“There were a lot of people that were interested in this case from day one. People expect to know what’s going on with their justice system and how things work,” Hultman said.
Added Cook: “I’m speaking out now because I believe it’s never too late to tell the truth.”
Cook and Hultman also alleged that jury foreman Paul Rodriguez threatened to have them kicked off the jury.
“He said if I could not change my mind or go with the group, or be more understanding, that he would have to notify the bailiff, the bailiff would notify the judge, and the judge would have me removed,” Cook said in a transcript provided by MSNBC.
Hultman said he also felt threatened and didn’t want to get kicked off the trial.
A call to Rodriguez was not returned. A jury foreman cannot remove other jurors just for disagreeing.
Cosby asked Cook if the other jurors will be angry with her.
“They can be as angry as they want to. They ought to be ashamed. They’re the ones that let a pedophile go,” responded Cook, 79.
Upset at other jurors Hultman, 62, told Cosby he was upset with the way other jurors approached the case: “The thing that really got me the most was the fact that people just wouldn’t take those blinders off long enough to really look at all the evidence that was there.”
The New York Daily News first reported Aug. 4 that Hultman and Cook planned books and believed Jackson was guilty.
Hultman has said that when jurors took an anonymous poll early in their deliberations he was one of three jurors who voted for conviction.
On June 13, the jurors unanimously acquitted Jackson of all charges, which alleged that he molested a 13-year-old boy, plied the boy with wine and conspired to hold him and his family captive so they would make a video rebutting a damaging television documentary.
Cook told Cosby: “The air reeked of hatred and people were angry and I had never been in an atmosphere like that before.”
In June, Hultman told the AP about the verdict: “That’s not to say he’s an innocent man. He’s just not guilty of the crimes he’s been charged with.”
During an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with five other jurors in June, Cook was one of three who raised their hands when asked if they thought Jackson may have molested other children but not the 13-year-old boy.
“We had our suspicions, but we couldn’t judge on that because it wasn’t what we were there to do,” she said at the time.
Hultman’s book will be called “The Deliberator” and Cook’s is “Guilty as Sin, Free as a Bird,” said Larry Garrison, a producer who is working with both on their separate books and a combined television movie. Part of the profits from their book sales will go to charity, he said.
Note that I highlighted Eleanor Cook’s comments above, not because I agree with them, but because I think the entire comment (aside from being very, very weird) sheds some interesting light on how she felt about pretty much everyone involved in this case. Throughout the proceedings, her demeanor was pretty much that of a grumpy old grandma who didn’t particularly like anyone involved in this case-prosecution or defense, it didn’t seem to matter. In this case, her obvious detest for Michael Jackson and his lifestyle, perhaps, was only outweighed by her absolute detest for the Arvizos, which she never made any secret. In one television interview, she spoke openly about her disdain for Janet Arvizo and her habit of snapping her fingers at the jury. Her comment to Rita Cosby is interestingly telling, in that she obviously didn’t feel much sympathy for Gavin even as an alleged “victim.’
Another interesting tidbit: While it is Hultman who loves to toss around the phrase “the blinders came on” (he used it here and is quoted using it again in the Oxygen promo) the second quote I have highlighted reveals that he formed his own bias very early in the deliberations (no doubt during the prosecution testimony) and then evidently must have put on his own blinders, refusing to listen as each prosecution witness in turn crumbed under cross examination.
The next highlighted quote reveals something of Hultman’s own savior/victim complex. He loved the idea of selling himself to the public as the “lone juror” who held out for truth and justice, but the reality is that he seemed to love the attention much more. He never specifies what “people” were angry with him, or why. In the Oxygen promo, he mentions receiving threats and the obvious inference is that the hate mail must have come from Michael Jackson fans. However, the passion of MJ fans is a glaring red herring that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual case.
Lastly, we see that Hultman and Cook were hand in hand, obviously working with the same producer on a deal that was supposed to yield them two separate books AND a combined television movie! All in all, it was a deal that would have netted them quite a handsome profit. It gets better, though, because apparently longtime Michael Jackson hater Stacy Brown (singlehandedly responsible for planting many of the vilest stories on Michael in the media for the past decade) was on board to serve as the book’s ghost writer. The deal apparently fell through, however, when leaked passages revealed that Brown had plagiarized the “work” of yet another notorious MJ hater-Maureen Orth, apparently having lifted large chunks from her Vanity Fair article. Hilariously, even the slimy Stacy Brown ended up tossing Hultman under the bus before the whole ordeal had ended! In a 2005 Santa Maria Times article, Stacy Brown publicly denied any association with Hultman’s book and was quoted as saying:
“I think this is another attempt for Ray to keep himself in the media,” Brown said. “No one is interested in his book. He was badly misguided. He/d be better off riding into the sunset and getting on with his life.”
That these two would have even considered relying on Maureen Orth’s nonsense (remember, she was the one claiming that Michael had engaged in secret voodoo rituals to hex Steven Spielberg!) speaks volumes about the contents of this thankfully never birthed monstrocity. So apparently, instead of relying on the evidence and testimony of the trial, it seems the plan was to fill the book with tabloid nonsense. This was exactly the same tactics that Wade Robson’s attorneys are using now. In the case of Hultman and Brown, it seems they weren’t sorry for anything other than the fact that they got caught in the act of fabricating “evidence” from a source even more ridiculous than anything they could cook up on their own. And now, Hultman’s decision to participate in The Jury Speaks makes it quite clear that after twelve years, he still hasn’t been willing to take Stacy Brown’s advice and just ride off into the sunset (one only wishes that Stacy Brown would likewise apply his own advice to himself!).
In September of 2005, legal analyst Jonna Spilbor blasted Eleanor Cook and Raymond Hultman in a scathing article that called to task jurors who are seduced by the almighty dollar, or as she put it, jurors who attempt to “profit from their duty.” As Spilbor pointed out in 2005, what Hultman and Cook did was more than reprehensible-it was also illegal!
When The Jury Has Spoken, But Won’t Shut Up: How the Jackson Jurors’ Book Deals Broke the Law, and How We Can Avoid Having Jurors Undermine Their Own Verdicts
By JONNA M. SPILBOR
Thursday, Sep. 01, 2005
By now, there probably isn’t a single Earth-dweller who doesn’t know Jackson was acquitted following the fifteen-week trial. The jury of four men and eight women rendered a collective “not guilty” verdict to each and every charge. And their verdicts rang out loud and clear across a courtroom which, at times, seemed more like a battlefield.
Several weeks have since passed, most of them quietly – appropriately so – as Jackson’s across-the-board acquittal literally means this case is closed. The jury has spoken, and frankly, there is nothing left to say.
Why then, won’t Jackson’s jury shut up?
Less than two months after clearing Michael Jackson of all charges, jurors Ray Hultman and Eleanor Cook have come forward publicly to announce they made a mistake. In their words, they feel Jackson’s jury “let a pedophile go.”
Cook has reported being “bullied” into her not-guilty verdicts – all fourteen of them.
Hultman claims his conscience has gotten the better of him. At least, so says his publisher.
Whether these claims are publicity stunts, or genuine revelations, the world will never know, because, as has been the case since time in memoriam, jury deliberations are done in secret. Privately. Behind closed doors, only to be interrupted by a welcomed pizza person or bailiff.
These surprising revelations are of no legal significance whatsoever to Michael Jackson – double jeopardy prevents Jackson from being retried, no matter what any or all of the jurors say post-verdict. Yet they are significant for us all – for they are destructive to the integrity of our criminal justice system. There is something very powerfully unsettling about a jury, or rogue members thereof, undermining its own verdict.
In this column, using the Jackson case as a prime example, I will discuss how, when it comes to criminal trials – particularly in high-profile cases – a few minor modifications to the law could save future defendants from similar fates.
The stakes are high – when jurors whose verdict was “Not Guilty” start to reverse themselves in public statements, their comments degrade the sanctity of the criminal justice system, and violate the paramount right of any defendant — the right to a fair trial. They also threaten the spirit of the double-jeopardy clause; despite his acquittals, Jackson may not be at risk in the courtroom anymore, but his guilt is being debated, once again, in the court of public opinion.
Why Jury Duty and Dollar Signs Don’t Mix
To see why situations like that of the Jackson jury are happening, it’s worth stepping back a bit, and looking at the character of jury duty as a whole.
Jury duty. It’s the cornerstone of our criminal justice system. A girder within the framework of our Constitution. A noble commitment that nary an American citizen shall escape – save for those who have themselves been previously convicted by a unanimous group of twelve unfamiliar peers.
That is, until now.
Today – especially when it comes to celebrity trials, or those that become celebrity trials (think Scott Peterson; he was a fertilizer salesman, remember) – being selected for jury duty is almost like winning the lottery. It leads to lucrative book deals. Movie options. All-expenses- paid interviews in exciting cities. The post-trial money-making opportunities for celebrity-trial jurors abound. And it’s all perfectly legal – indeed, arguably protected by the First Amendment.
But should it be? The First Amendment is involved here, but so is the Sixth – which guarantees a fair trial. Might the future prospect of payment for post-mortem, jury deliberation tell-alls cloud jurors’ judgments and affect their decisions?
In high-profile criminal trials, it’s not difficult to imagine an enterprising potential juror with dollar signs in his eyes, and fingers crossed, dutifully answering all the questions of voir dire as if he were channeling Mother Teresa in an effort to be chosen.
And, it isn’t much of a leap from there to imagine an unscrupulous publisher who, with a wink and nod, secretly convinces a juror that his or her advance may include an extra zero should the verdict be, say, guilty. It’s been said that “sex sells,” but acquittals? Eh, not so much.
Jurors are the ultimate triers of fact. When we offer to pay for an account of a juror’s experience in the jury box, we risk changing what the juror has to sell. Put the prospect of making a million bucks in front of a middle-class juror (which most are) and you may create a monster.
And even if eleven jurors have perfect integrity (let’s not forget the admirable ten Jackson jurors who do NOT have book deals), it won’t matter much if the twelfth does not. That twelfth could either hang the jury, or else hold out so strongly for conviction, that he or she batters the rest into submission.
The Case of the Michael Jackson Jurors: Why Did They Come Forward Now?
Looking at jurors Hultman and Cook, I asked myself this: Why come forward now? For that matter, why come forward at all? If they cannot change their verdict (and they can’t), and therefore cannot change the outcome of the case, why speak out?
The answer, sadly, requires little imagination. Obviously, something happened in between what appeared to be an unwavering “not guilty” verdict following several days of deliberation, and August 8th, when they appeared together – on a primetime cable news show – to announce their about-face.
What was it? Did these two people happen to show up at some “Jurors Anonymous” meeting, only to learn the Step Six is admitting when you’ve rendered the wrong decision? Or, were they approached with the prospect of a book and movie deal which (wink, wink) just might make them a whole lot richer if there were (hint, hint) a controversy of sorts surrounding the verdict?
I can’t truly know these jurors’ motivations, but I can hazard a guess based on the timing of events, and the statements they’ve publicly made. I’m putting my money on the book and movie deal because, simply, the revelations of jurors Hultman and Cook coincide with the announcement of their individual books deals and combined television project.
Each juror will be coming out with his or her own book, and both, not surprisingly, will be published by the same publisher. Hultman’s is to be entitled, “The Deliberator”, while the title of Cook’s tell-all is to be, “Guilty As Sin, Free As A Bird.” I imagine that books entitled “Yup, Like We Said, Still Not Guilty” would be a lot less saleable.
How The Jackson Jurors Broke the Law: They Were Supposed to Wait Ninety Days
In California, Penal Code section 1122states, in part: “After the jury has been sworn and before the people’s opening address, the court shall instruct the jury…that prior to, and within 90 days of, discharge, they shall not request, accept, agree to accept, or discuss with any person receiving or accepting, any payment or benefit in consideration for supplying any information concerning the trial; and that they shall promptly report to the court any incident within their knowledge involving an attempt by any person to improperly influence any member of the jury.” (Emphasis added.)
This is California’s version, but most states, it turns out, have similar statutes – imposing moratoria, but not forbidding jury book and movie deals.
Looking at the calendar, it has not been 90 days since Jackson’s jury was discharged. Clearly, the pair is in violation of the statute — a statute punishable by contempt of court.
How can this violation be addressed? Jackson – or the prosecution, though I doubt it would be so inclined, since it too believed Jackson guilty – could file a motion for an “Order to Show Cause” why the jurors should not be held in contempt. Or the court could issue such an order on its own initiative (in legal parlance, “sua sponte”).
But this is an unusual case: Most jurors would simply have complied with the law, and waited the ninety days. Most publishers’ attorneys would have been sure to advise them to do so. And that leads to an important question: In a typical case, is a ninety-day moratorium on juror book deals enough?
In my opinion, absolutely not.
An Ounce of Prevention: Why Not Do Away with the 90-Day Clause of Penal Code §1122?
There is an easy fix. It’s time to do away with statutes that allow jurors to profit from their duty. Until then, a defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury of his peers continues to be severely compromised. Forget the ninety-day limit. Let’s just say no to juror book and movie deals.
Even in a society as delightfully entrepreneurial as ours, there are a few things in life that simply mustn’t be for sale. For example, judges cannot take gifts, and lawyers cannot represent conflicting parties, no matter how that might negatively affect a lawyer’s income stream. Nor can a lawyer publicize his client’s secrets to the world – then take refuge in a claim that he was only exercising his First Amendment rights.
Similarly, never should the rights of an accused be trumped by the price tag one juror places on his or her sworn duty to be fair and impartial.
An Acquittal Should Guarantee Freedom – Not Being Tried In the Press By the Same Jurors
The conduct of Michael Jackson’s jurors is downright shameful. In this country, an acquittal should guarantee one’s freedom. And I don’t simply mean freedom from future prosecution, I mean freedom from public ridicule, freedom from suspicion, freedom from having to be berated publicly by the same individuals who set you free.
Comedian Norm Crosby once said, “When you go into court, you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.”
Today, with potential book-and-movie-deal paychecks that dwarf the $12 dollars-a-day and free lunch of bygone juries, I gotta ask, who’s dumb now?
With The Jury Speaks kicking off this weekend, this paragraph from Spilbor’s article bears repeating for emphasis:
The conduct of Michael Jackson’s jurors is downright shameful. In this country, an acquittal should guarantee one’s freedom. And I don’t simply mean freedom from future prosecution, I mean freedom from public ridicule, freedom from suspicion, freedom from having to be berated publicly by the same individuals who set you free.
If fans and persons who are knowledgable about the Jackson/Arvizo case needed further confirmation of this series’ intended direction, that confirmation appeared with an article on the Oxygen.com website titled “10 Of The Most Shocking Facts From the Michael Jackson Case.” The article, credited to Kat George, actually consists of few “facts” at all and is, instead, riddled with egregious mistakes and inaccuracies about the investigation and trial. Although it appears now that at least “some” edits and corrections have been made (perhaps following the deluge of angry tweets they received from Jackson fans rightfully correcting these errors!) the piece is still a hot mess of sloppily researched and inaccurate information. Among the most glaring, it credits the rebuttal video Michael Jackson, Take Two: The Footage You Were Never Meant To Seeto Martin Bashir (this was footage shot by Michael’s own team; Bashir had zilch to do with it) and erroneously claims that there were criminal charges filed against Jackson that were later dropped. Where this information comes from I have no idea! It appears that Kat George is simply confusing the initial investigation with the actual charges (an initial investigation was launched by The Department of Children and Family Services and the LAPD in February of 2003 following the airing of Living with Michael Jackson. After extensive questioning of the Arvizos, both the Department of Children and Family Services and the LAPD determined there was no case, and officially closed the investigation. However, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department then launched their own investigation in April of 2003. District Attorney Tom Sneddon had changed the alleged dates of the molestation from “Feb 7th-Mar 10th” to “Feb 20th-Mar 12th” in order to help explain away a rebuttal tape the Arvizos had made in which they sang Michael’s praises as a father figure to them). The dropping of the first investigation launched by the Department of Children and Family Services and the LAPD is most likely what Kat George was referring to, but there is a huge difference between an investigation and actually charging someone!
Initially, the article had repeated the thoroughly debunked media hoax regarding child porn found at Neverland. At least that error appears to have been corrected, but it is still linking to a tabloid article from The Sun that mentions “life sized creepy dolls” being found (which were actually mannequins, and simply one more item in a room filled with hoarded clutter). And really, do we need “Pajama Day” listed as one of the “10 Most Shocking Facts” about this trial? Here Kat George is simply doing the same thing the media did back in 2005, using the spectacle of “Pajama Day” to divert from any real facts about the trial. (To further add to the confusion, the website is using a photo from Michael’s 2002 civil trial against Marcel Avram, making it appear to an unsuspecting public as if Jackson took the witness stand in his own behalf at the 2005 molestation trial. It is the well known photo of Michael taking from a jar of candy while on the witness stand. In the context of a civil trial-which this was-it’s an adorable photo, but if readers are led to mistakenly believe that it is from the molestation trial, it certainly creates the wrong impression, making it appear as if he is treating a gravely serious accusation in a frivolous manner. One almost has to wonder if this was the intent by using that photo, which has nothing to do with the Arvizo trial). If we want to talk about “shocking facts” from the trial that the public may not know, how about starting with a DA who intentionally changed the timeline of the alleged abuse in order to make his case fly? How about this same DA having a pornographic magazine tested for Gavin’s fingerprints after having knowingly had Gavin touch the magazine? How about how witness after witness crumbed under cross examination? Or the illegal raid of Mark Gerago’s office, which violated client/attorney privilege? Or the fact that Janet Arvizo had already coached her kids to lie when she scammed JC Penney? Any or all of these (and so many more!) make for far more “shocking facts” of this case than anything mentioned in the Oxygen article, which simply sources tabloid articles.
One can only assume that if the content of that article in any way reflects the overall content of the episode, this can’t bode well-either in the name of factual accuracy or fairness to a now deceased defendant, one whose full acquittal in 2005 should have ended the matter once and for all. Just as with the Reelz channel’s recent series Rich and Acquitted, these shows seem designed with little more than one purpose in mind-to blatantly defy the laws of double jeopardy and to make a mockery of the justice system, all in the name of sensationalistic entertainment.
Important Update: Just as I was preparing to publish this post, I was informed (thanks to my good friend sanemjfan) of a Q&A session conducted on Reddit by the show’s executive producer, Nancy Glass. I have to say, I was both pleasantly surprised and genuinely encouraged by what she had to say in answer to some fans’ questions and concerns. In the name of fairness-and especially given that I blasted the show pretty good here-I would like to include those responses for you guys.
Given Glass’s responses, I feel somewhat better and more hopeful that this show may not be the total trainwreck I was anticipating. I’m still not thrilled about Ray Hultman being the apparent major spokesperson for the Jackson jury, but perhaps the opinions of the other four jurors will help balance things out. I am hoping this may turn out to be a valuable lesson that we can’t always judge an entire program based off of a horribly edited trailer, but as the old saying goes, the proof will be “in the pudding” this Sunday night. I will update this post with a full review once the episode has aired.
UPDATE: The show will also be featuring juror Paulina Coccoz. I hope she will be allowed ample time in the episode to be able to speak on the case as passionately as he has in this recently published Fox article:
Juror Paulina Coccoz is shocked many people still believe Michael Jackson was guilty on all charges of molesting a 13-year-old boy he befriended as the child recovered from cancer in 2003.
The then-46-year-old King of Pop walked free in June 2005 after a nearly four-month trial. While the jurors said at the time they wanted to “return to our lives as anonymously as we came,” some, including Coccoz, have spoken about their experience for Oxygen’s four-night special, “The Jury Speaks,” in hopes it will set the record straight.
“It’s really important for me to share my story because when I talk, even in my daily life to people that I don’t know or even with people I know, everybody still thinks he was guilty,” Coccoz, known as juror #10, told Fox News. “And I find it hard to believe that it’s still going on. That’s not what happened… he was accused of some horrible, horrible things and it’s a sad thing that we lost such a wonderful human being on this planet.
“We need to all look at things for what they were instead of saying, ‘Oh yeah, he was a freak. He was guilty because he was a freak.’ Everybody’s different and God forbid we should all be judged in a courtroom because we’re a freak and we’re guilty.”
Coccoz didn’t always feel that way about the pop star. When the mother of three boys first heard the accusations, she was ready to find him guilty if they proved to be true.
“For me, it was a real sensitive spot,” she admitted. “I took it kind of personal in a way that you would never want something like that to happen to your children. So I really didn’t think or care that he was Michael Jackson. If he was doing these things that he was being accused of, I didn’t feel that I had any problem finding him guilty if that was the case.”
The case first arose after a February 2003 broadcast of the British documentary “Living with Michael Jackson,” in which the entertainer said sharing his bed with children in the Neverland Ranch was a non-sexual act of affection. He was shown holding hands with Gavin Arvizo, a cancer patient Jackson wanted to help, which immediately sparked outrage.
While the family originally insisted no inappropriate contact occurred between the two, Jackson was charged later that same year. Prosecutors claimed at the time the singer gave Arvizo alcohol in order to abuse him.
“I do remember looking at his face and his body language when Gavin Arvizo took the stand,” recalled Coccoz. “It was very obvious he was deeply hurt. You could see that his head was down and there was no eye contact whatsoever. He was taking in all of the testimony and his body language really showed his sadness.”
The jury found the testimony of Arvizo’s family to be not credible. Some jurors even noted Arvizo’s mother would stare down at them and even snapped her fingers at the bewildered group.
“There were a lot of moments where you felt… ulterior motives was money,” she explained. “And it appeared that they were imposing themselves on everyone that they could and they used different opportunities and a ‘feel sorry for me’ scenario. There were a lot of moments, really.
“There were several people, several stars that indicated they really needed something from them. It was very strange that they talked to an attorney and said he was molested. And ironically, it was the same attorney that had something to do with the Jordan Chandler case. So, I don’t know, that raised some eyebrows. It just seemed really, really far-fetched. And unfortunately, the family’s credibility was just horrible.”
In 1993, Chandler’s father accused Jackson of sexually abusing his 13-year-old son. While Jackson always denied any wrongdoing, they reportedly settled the case out of court for $20 million and both parties signed a confidentiality agreement.
The mother also noticed something she thought was peculiar about Arvizo.
“Because I have boys, I guess that’s my experience I’m using to refer to,” she said. “Boys are pretty obvious in their mannerisms. [And] he didn’t seem upset…when you put kids in a situation where they’re suddenly surrounded by adults, you see a different person…when it comes to talking about being molested, I would imagine that’s a very difficult, difficult thing to talk about, especially in front of a lot of people in a courtroom setting. So I can see how it’s something that would be upsetting. [For him], it’s something where it would come across as ‘no big deal, just another day in the courtroom.’
“But also, the emotions that go with a moment that causes trauma or impact on you, especially if you cared about someone or were so enamored with someone who totally let you down. I would think that would be a little more intense…not even a tear or a moment of choking up arose. And that was kind of strange, too.”
The jury delivered the verdict in California Superior Court on their seventh day of deliberations. Coccoz revealed she will never forget Jackson’s reaction.
“I remember looking and I could see that there was a tear running down his face…we were all very emotional. It was a very emotional moment,” she revealed.
And while the courtroom drama came to an end, Coccoz believed the trial haunted Jackson since then. The singer passed away at age 50 in 2009 from cardiac arrest.
“[It] painted a picture of him being this monster when he spent all his life trying to do good things for children, that had to have just crushed him,” she said. “I know it would have crushed me. To rob him of the joy of what he worked so hard (for) in his life was just so, so wrong. I can only imagine for him, that was probably the reason why he had a hard time with finding that spark again. I imagine that spark was just taken away.”
Coccoz added that if the trial were today, she would still stand by her not guilty verdict based on the evidence presented to the jury.
“It was pretty obvious that there was no molestation done,” she said. “It was pretty obvious that there were ulterior motives on behalf of the family. And the mother, she orchestrated the whole thing…that’s my opinion. But there wasn’t a shred of evidence that was able to show us or give us any doubt in voting guilty. It was pretty obvious there was no other way to vote other than not guilty.”
“The Jury Speaks: Michael Jackson” airs Sunday, July 23 at 9 p.m.
Also, at least one of the featured jurors will be conducting a Q&A on Reddit after the broadcast.
With another June 25th rapidly approaching comes the usual onslaught of Michael Jackson documentaries. And also as usual, some will be decent at best; most will be garbage. I can count on one hand the number of documentaries that have successfully captured and discussed the essence of his musical genius. Some that have been simply generalized narratives about his life have been pretty decent, but few have been able to top The Jacksons: An American Dream and that has been over twenty-five years ago (from there, it has only gone from bad to worse). And to date, there has not yet been one that has taken a hard stance on providing any grain of truth or insight about the allegations made against him. At best, most have pussyfooted around the issue, leaving only broad innuendos and the usual “we’ll never really know for sure” cop-out. Like all fans, I have suffered and gritted my teeth through some pretty god awful documentaries, but by far, one of the worst I have had the displeasure to view recently was a film called “Man in the Mirror” which aired in the UK on Channel 5 back in March. Well, I should have known it was a stinker when they couldn’t exercise more imagination than resorting to the usual cliche’ of naming it after one of Michael’s song titles; even moreso, the fact that it bears the same title as the equally horrendous 2004 flick starring Flex Alexander.
I think by now we should know to be wary of any MJ documentary or movie that bears the title of this 1988 hit. Most filmmakers these days could care less what that lyric actually means. For them, it has simply become a convenient and gimmicky way to bait audiences into yet another attempt at pseudo psychoanalyzing Michael Jackson’s character and how he came to be the “tragic trainwreck” that the media is so determined to present him as.
So why, one might ask, am I even bothering to review this hot mess, especially when there are more worthwhile MJ topics to discuss? Let’s just say partly because I want to inform any readers who might be curious enough to check it out, and also because, well, sometimes ripping apart something that stinks can be a lot of fun. Or at the very least, cathartic. (And, I might add, anything I can say will probably be quite kind compared to what has already been said about this film on social media and fan sites). So here goes…
In order to keep the discussion focused, I’ll be taking the film in sequential ten minute chunks, and then will conclude with a summation of thoughts and commentary at the end.
Okay, when I say we’re going to start at the beginning, I mean really the beginning, where the seeds of this documentary’s intent are already being planted. Let’s consider, for example, this disclaimer at the beginning (small white letters against a pitch black background):
The events and scenes in this dramatized film are based on archive sources and first hand accounts of Michael Jackson’s life.
Notice they use the term “archive sources” as an impressive way to make it sound as if this film has been based on extensive research. With such a disclaimer, we might be led to believe that the filmmakers have accessed some very deep resources for this film, but within ten minutes, even the most causal viewer will know what a crock that claim is. In short, these “archive sources” are nothing more than forty years’ worth of pop cultural consciousness, most of it arising from well worn tabloid stories and common knowledge. The truth is this: Michael Jackson’s story, his rise to fame from humble beginnings in Gary Indiana; the sacrifice of a normal childhood; the transcendence to adult superstardom; the forces that conspired against him and eventually brought him down; his own inner and outward struggles, is a story already all too familiar. The narrative of Michael Jackson’s life was played out on the world’s stage for four decades, and so the question remains: With all the hordes of books, films, and documentaries that are readily available, what is the purpose of adding to that number unless there is something truly new or unique to add to the Michael Jackson saga? Within the first few minutes, this film is already treading on ground not only familiar, but so familiar as to render it cliche’.
Interestingly, this description was lifted from Earnest Valentino’s Youtibe channel:
Earnest Valentino makes several appearances as the adult Michael Jackson throughout the Documentary which shows the pain, and suffering Michael Jackson endured while being used, abused, and accused from those he thought were his friends.
That’s all fine and good, but unfortunately, this film, like so many others of its ilk, gives lip service to this kind of empathy for Michael’s tragic life while at the same time further hammering the final nails of insult and betrayal into his coffin. And it raises another problematic issue, as well. As has been the case with so many projects that purport to be about Michael Jackson, the “cult of celebrity” and the morbid fascination with what is commonly perceived as the “tragedy” of his life overshadows any apparent interest in his art. As always, the aim seems to be more about psychoanalyzing Michael Jackson than truly appreciating his artistry or in making any kind of serious attempt to understand the roots and nuances of that artistry. It’s not that I would disagree if anyone said that Michael Jackson’s life was tragic. In many ways, it was. But to boil all of the complexities of his life and who he was down to this very one-dimensional kind of narrative is worse than misleading. It is blatantly insulting.
Over this black background, ominous music plays. These kinds of choices are not accidental. Granted, I understand the limitations that these films are up against, given the legal restrictions placed on using Michael’s actual music, but why must it sound like something from a horror film soundtrack? Instead of something joyous or upbeat that would be befitting the kinds of feelings that Michael Jackson’s music normally inspires, they choose this very somber intro with music that is guaranteed to make the listener feel creepy, more appropriate for the beginning of Friday the 13th than a documentary on an artist who inspired the world. And sure enough, the very first shot we see is a garishly made up Earnest Valentino (resembling a very cartoonish caricature of MJ’s early 90’s look) creeping down the stairs in only a bathrobe. It is December 1993, and this scene is supposedly reenacting the strip search at Neverland.
MJ Tribute Artist Earnest Valentino-Fairly or Not-Has Taken A Lot of Heat For His Participation In This Project. Perhaps He Needs To Stick With What He Does Best-Imitating The King of Pop’s Dance Moves!
This is the second time that filmmakers have attempted to reenact this scene, and they have yet to get it right. (The otherMan in the Mirror film had him ridiculously blocking out the humiliation of the strip search by gazing at a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, as if her supposed “presence” was the only thing enabling him to get through a strip search-which goes into even weirder territory than what we have here).
In both cases, we might say they are making a sincere attempt to portray how humiliating the strip search was for him, but the problem is that both portrayals present him as so annoyingly childish and out of touch with reality that any sympathy is instantly negated. I suppose if there is a positive, it does give us a sense of Michael’s vulnerability in that moment. Stripped naked before the gawking gazes of onlookers and their cameras, this is (supposedly) Michael Jackson with all illusions stripped away. Since this is a prominent narrative of the film, I can guess that this may have been at least part of the reason for “going there” right off the bat. The strip search itself becomes a kind of symbolic allegory for Michael’s life, someone who up to that point had managed to layer on illusion upon illusion and for whom image was everything.
But even if I “get that” as a viewer, it still raises a lot of troubling questions as to why they felt they had to start out of the gate with a scene of the strip search, immediately dredging up associations of Michael Jackson with accusations of child molestation. I agree wholeheartedly with the video blogger who posted this reaction to the film: Why the need to “go there” right off the bat? As viewer bait, this scene already sets the tone for the entire project. And this video blogger gets something else right, too: The narration sounds disturbingly (and all too eerily) like Martin Bashir. And the fact that Bashir’s footage is used repeatedly throughout the film (as if no other footage was readily available) further adds to the creepy similarities to Bashir’s 2003 hit piece. (To be fair, perhaps Living With Michael Jackson has so permanently scarred the psyche of anyone who has ever loved, admired, or appreciated Michael Jackson that even a hint of a British documentary in that same eerily and monotonously toned accent is enough to cause psychosomatic shudders!). But it’s not just the accent-it’s that same, heavy handed, overly dramatized tone, as if any recount of Michael Jackson’s life can only be done justice by being delivered in the heavily pedantic tone of a crime docudrama.
The scene is interspersed with comments from Jennifer Batten, Michael’s long time touring lead guitarist, who apparently was one of the few reliable and trustworthy persons close to him to agree to be interviewed for this travesty. All I can say is, thank God for her presence, but it’s not nearly enough to offset the rest of the crap, and her comments (as with all of the participants) have been heavily edited. She does make the point that Michael was someone who was “betrayed over and over” and repeatedly “stabbed in the back” by people he thought he could trust. But it would have been really nice if the filmmakers had done more to connect the dots between that statement and what the viewer is seeing being enacted with the strip search. The bait lines that follow all sound like carefully scripted tabloid headlines, and are presented in a disturbingly factual manner that leaves little room for the viewer to question whether these are, in fact, hypothetical conclusions that have been drawn. Granted, the first two sound bites are not ones I would dispute: Michael as the product of an abusive father; Michael as the child star forced to grow up too soon amidst the adult trappings of stardom and show business; Michael as the child being exposed too soon to things that no child should know about. But beyond that, it goes into territory that is clearly blurring the lines between fact, speculation, and the media’s long held cherished “pet theories”: Michael as the boy “trapped by childhood,” unable to “embrace the adult world”; Michael as Peter Pan; Michael as the caricature boy “unable to grow up,” the Michael whose sexuality remains a question mark, yada yada yada. You get the drift. It’s the same old rote every fan knows by heart by now. Certainly, Michael himself played a hand in at least semi creating that image of himself, and that is a topic I have addressed before and will certainly address again. But the irony is that even here, in a documentary whose very purpose seems to be as a kind of expose against the imagery Michael Jackson created around himself, the writers don’t seem to “get” that this was at least as much a part of Michael’s carefully crafted image as anything else-and as such, equally subject to scrutiny. Just why it has been so often taken at absolute face value seems to have a much more sinister root, based on an obvious desire to keep Michael Jackson at precisely that level of complexity (as has so often been noted, the media’s obvious and determined emasculation of Michael Jackson has been, and remains, an ongoing obsession). Most unforgivable of all, however, is what happens next: Without even a hint of question about it, the narrator states unequivocally that Michael Jackson was “unable to create his own family.” Of course, guess who pops up as the next interviewee-none other than good ol’ Mark Lester! Yes, he gets a platform here in order to continue with his usual dancing around of how he “could be” Paris’s biological father but how that shouldn’t matter because “Michael was her father” (then in that case, why doesn’t he stop giving these kinds of interviews?).
Here is the real problem, though. Yes, there has been a lot of media speculation about the biological paternity of Michael’s kids, and as it’s a topic beyond the scope of this post, I don’t wish to get into it here except to say that such speculations are just that: Speculations. What’s more, it has been speculation largely fostered by the same media that has so determinedly emasculated Michael at every turn. Unfortunately, it is a campaign that has been carried out with such success to the point that even some fans now seem to have fallen under its sway. Yet we have lost sight of one very simple truth: It’s never been confirmed by any reliable source that his three kids are not his biological children. Michael always insisted that all three children were his own, and until there is proof to the contrary, it is simply unethical to state anything otherwise-and to present such a speculative statement as if it were factual is utterly unforgivable.
At this point, I’m sure this is when most fans would have already checked out, but I wanted to see just how bad it could really get and to get a taste of what UK audiences saw. And, boy, does it ever get bad.
To be fair, some of the early segments depicting reenactments of young Michael growing up in Gary, Indiana are decent (at least if one can overlook the poor acting) and the actor cast to play little Michael is passably endearing (even if lacking in physical resemblance) but, then, this is hardly controversial stuff here, and indeed, it’s a story already familiar to anyone who has seen the much superior The Jacksons: An American Dream. At any rate, the documentary’s obvious modus operandi isn’t so much about how little Michael Jackson, aged five, became a singing prodigy, and it isn’t about the rise of an American working class black family from rags to riches. Instead, it is clear that what the writers here want to get to-as quickly as possible-is how all of this laid the foundation for Michael’s adult psychological issues. Thus, one of the film’s few really charming segments (the Jackson children harmonizing on the spiritual “Down to the River To Pray”) is quickly dispensed with so we can move on to that ol’ devil Joe Jackson beating the kids.
This segment picks up with the Jackson kids honing their skills and polishing their act to become one of the premier musical acts of Gary, Indiana and nearby Chicago. Again, nothing particularly controversial here, as the documentary pretty much recounts what is already well known. But Joe’s rages and demands for perfection quickly becomes a predictable center piece. Howard Bloom recounts a meeting with Joe where he states, “I could see the flames of hell burning in his eyes.” Perfectly timed with this quote is a close-up on the face of the actor playing Joe in the reenactments, indeed looking like Satan incarnate (or the close-up of Michael’s demonized cat eyes at the end of Thriller!). I mean, really. I have met Joe and seen him from pretty much the same distance as Howard Bloom, and while Joe is undeniably an intimidating presence, to say he has “the flames of hell” in his eyes is an absurd exaggeration.
I’m not denying (and never have) that the abuse was real, and of course, I have already written many past posts about the complicated relationship Michael had with his father. But whatever we can say about that relationship, it was definitely not as one dimensional as it is portrayed here. However, in this case, it is quite clear why the writers want to tread this ground yet again. It is an important early chapter in understanding Michael’s adult psyche, which is clearly where this whole thing is bent on heading. What this segment does set us up for is the disconnect from a reality that a child performing at such a young age would naturally experience, and no doubt this was a disconnect that did continue to haunt him into adult life. It wasn’t as if his performing was an occasional weekend gig, or a side hobby. By age seven, he was already touring regularly on the chitlin’ circuit, so of course, any hope of a “normal” childhood was no longer an option. In one of the few redeeming segments of the film, the especial challenges and dangers of being a black family act traveling to gigs during a still racially segregated America was interesting, but far too brief. It would seem fair to say that this, also, had to have had a tremendous impact on young Michael’s psyche, as well as shaping his world view at a very vulnerable age. But instead, the writers seem far more obsessed with the shaping of his adult sexuality (which we already know will be portrayed as, at best, from very troubled to perverted to non-existent, not necessarily in that order). There is a very protracted and creepy reenactment in which a young Michael spies on a fleshy stripper, while the narrator comments on how he was exposed too young to “sex and sexuality.” This narrative comes straight from Michael himself, who never shied away from discussing what he was exposed to in those early strip club gigs, so again, it’s not that I have an issue with the validity of what is being said. In truth, Michael was exposed to adult sexuality at a much too young age. The only thing I take issue with is the fact that, once again, we know where this is going, and it is an already cliched’ narrative which is not going to get any fresh insight here. At worst, the emphasis on Michael’s unusual and precocious sexual experiences is intended to make the viewer question if this sort of thing could lead one to become a sexual abuser as an adult. At the very least, it is setting the viewer up for a distorted perception of Michael as a sexual adult, as most viewers will be bound to wonder how he could possibly have come out of all those experiences with a healthy adult sexuality. It seems to me that at least part of the suggestion here is that Michael’s sexuality may well have become fixated at this stage, which would certainly open the door for some rather disturbing if albeit speculative conclusions. I would certainly agree that growing up with a promiscuous father on the one hand, and a devoutly religious mother on the other, could certainly create some psychological conflicts about sex, and Michael was actually quite open about these conflicting feelings-all one has to do is listen to his lyrics! In truth, we really don’t need documentaries to tell us who Michael was, or what it felt like to be him. His own catalog of music is really his own greatest autobiography; his personal confessions in which he revealed all and spared few. In doing so, we can also clearly trace his personal growth from an insecure youth who feared eternal damnation as the wages of sin to a confident adult who could freely sing about adult relationships with no hint of self castigation. But I think where we have to be careful is in automatically equating these kinds of childhood experiences with a damaged psyche. Michael Jackson would hardly have been the first child-and certainly hardly the first male child-to see an adult naked woman at a tender age. Most kids at some point have stumbled into their parents’ bedroom at an inopportune time, and growing up in that tiny house in Gary with its paper thin walls, we can only imagine what he probably overheard from his parents’ bedroom! Michael’s brothers all had the same exposure, and yet few have questioned the impact of these early experiences on their adult sexuality. Unless there is actual physical abuse involved, most children-especially male children-are able to bounce back from such early memories relatively unscathed; it may even become something they joke about later in life, and Michael himself certainly never implied that he felt “damaged” by those experiences, only indicating that it was one of many “interesting” experiences that made his childhood unique. But, anyway, I am digressing. Back to the review…
This segment depicts the arrival at Motown and the beginning of worldwide fame. Again, a fairly decent segment but only because it is simply treading familiar, non controversial ground. And hence, one of the major problems that this, or any MJ documentary, must face. Like so many documentaries of MJ that have missed the mark, this one can’t seem to find a balance between the absurdly speculative on the one hand, and the banal cliches’ of a narrative that has already become all too familiar to most music fans. But even in this segment, it becomes less about Michael’s rise to childhood stardom and more about the way he was already being taught to manipulate his image. “This is where the root of this tragedy really begins,” states Carvell Wallace, and indeed, the whole purpose here is about the roots of that “tragedy.” There is a reenactment of a press conference that depicts the already nearly 11-year-old Michael lying about his age and stating he is eight. When questioned about the lie, he states with adult savvy, “…if they say something about my image that isn’t true, it’s ok. It’s not a lie. It’s PR.” I don’t know that Michael ever said those exact words. However, it is historical fact that he was at first promoted as an eight-year-old singer when, in reality, he was closer to eleven. The bottom line here is that, through the Motown machine, Michael was learning valuable lessons about how to manipulate his image. Again, this is not an issue of disputing what I already know to be true. But in this case, where we have to consider that we are dealing with a particular filmmaker’s vision, it’s important to examine why this becomes a central focus. Clearly, the intent here is to portray Michael as someone who learned from a young age how to manipulate his own image, as well as the press. It doesn’t take a major leap to know where this is going, and how it will be applied to Michael’s adult relationship with the media. It is a theory that will be confirmed much later in the video.
Here we pick up with the coming into adulthood and newfound independence: Breaking away from Motown, and eventually, from the Jacksons. I’ll skip over a lot of it, as there is nothing especially new or revelatory in the telling of the group’s switch from Motown to Epic. However, once we get into Michael’s acceptance of the role of the scarecrow in The Wiz and the move to New York (which wasn’t exactly a clean break away from the family, as he was still sharing digs with LaToya) it simply becomes more embarrassingly cringeworthy fodder for the white male interviewees to smugly cast aspersions on his sexuality. They seem to make much ado of the fact that here he was, on his own in the big city, hanging out nightly at Club 54, and apparently having little interest in-gasp!-a girlfriend. They erroneously state that Tatum O’Neal had been his only girlfriend up to that point. In fact, he was, at the time of his stint in New York, involved in a steady (and well publicized) relationship with Stephanie Mills, a fact they curiously choose to ignore. In one of the most ridiculously patronizing segments of the entire film, Epic Records producer Bobby Columby claims to have tried to talk to an obviously adult Michael about the birds and the bees, only to allegedly be informed by Michael that he “already had someone-Diana Ross” (which, of course is treated as a huge joke even though Michael and Diana Ross, also, had had a very blatantly obvious flirtation going on for years).
The whole segment is just very condescending and, again, the favorite media narrative of Michael Jackson, emasculated black male, takes center stage. Time and again, they go back to Michael’s supposed “ambivalence about sex” (a phrase actually used in the doc, several times) and yet the question remains: Ambivalence according to who? And just why has this narrative persisted so doggedly, mainly from the perspective of white male journalists? Clearly as long as that is the power in control of Michael’s image, that is the myth that will remain, firmly embedded somewhere between affectionate incredulity (that someone so pure and naive could possibly have been real) and patronizing scorn.
As cringeworthy as this may be to any real fan, it might be somewhat forgivable if the project can at least offer challenging insight into the artistry of a brilliant artist. But here, too, the doc falls disappointingly short. We enter into the next segment with a nod to Michael’s growing artistic independence from his family, but then comes the annoyingly ominous Martin Bashir-esque narrator to tell us how Michael’s first attempt at songwriting was “very nearly a disaster.” Never mind that this “very near disaster” just happened to be “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground,” one of the most successful and instantly recognizable tracks of the disco era-a song that is still a Jacksons classic to this day.
Sure, It Was Only One Chord. It Was Also Brilliant!
So you get the idea. The next segment picks up with a kind of clashing of wills between Jackson and a frustrated Bobby Columby who isn’t sure what to do with a song that is “one chord” that “goes on for twenty minutes.” Columby mentions the “disconnect” of Michael’s dynamic verse and chorus against that single chord, but within five seconds of listening to that familiar, catchy track one would think there would at least be some acquiesce; some admittance that clearly the kid knew what he was doing. Of course, we may grant that it’s almost always true: In the back story of every great track there was some producer who simply didn’t get it, or that maybe they heard the original track in such a raw state that they might be forgiven for their shortsightedness. Instead, we don’t get any indication from Columby that his opinion ever changed, and instead he brags about everything he had to “pile” onto the track in order to make it into a complete record. Unfortunately, these kinds of stories fit too patly yet another favorite narrative often perpetuated by white musicologists, which is the idea of Michael as the “talented but narcissistic boy genius in need of white saviors to bail him out of his own excesses.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I would ever begrudge giving due credit to those who guided Michael’s artistry-his wonderful collaborators, engineers, producers and musicians who worked with him. It’s just that I have noticed a rather disturbing trend, one that seems to permeate many recent biographies and documentaries, in which Michael simply comes off either as excessive egomaniac (at worst) or the childishly naive boy wonder (at best) who simply leaves all of those working around him feeling exasperated (the underlying assumption being that they are the “normal” ones who are having to keep his feet on the ground). It’s not that there isn’t some grain of truth in these stories-after all, genius seldom is fully grasped or understood by mere mortals-but it is downright insulting when an artist of Jackson’s caliber is time and again patronized in this manner. I can’t think of any similar documentaries on well respected white musicians (or even most black icons) where this kind of patronizing tone is so prevalent. I can’t imagine, for example, a documentary on The Beatles where we would have so many condescending “father figures” in the control room boasting of how they had to make John Lennon’s songs into something salvageable. Later in the documentary, there will be a reenacted scene where Michael simply flees the recording session, only to be found dancing maniacally in the hallway. That story actually is based on a true incident, but the reasoning was because Michael was so engrossed in the track that he had to “dance it out” before he could stand still and sing it. In the film, however, the way the scene is reenacted only makes him look foolish (even, albeit, mentally challenged) and the excuse given is that he is imagining himself running away from Joe (an excuse to get in another dig at Michael’s alleged, scarred psyche rather than focusing on something that might have been far more fascinating-how he went through his creative process). In fact, as has been so often the case in these short-sighted projects, any interest in that creative process is only given the thinnest veneer of lip service, at best. To their credit, it does get better once we get into the Off the Wall and Thriller eras, but that isn’t saying much, considering the back story of those albums is already well known. Even here, however, there are some unforgivable factual errors, such as stating that “Billie Jean” was the lead single from Thriller, when in fact the lead single was “The Girl is Mine.”
One thing they do get right is how Michael broke down “barrier after barrier” during this era, and the story of the hungry young artist with something to prove to the world-“he had the Eye of the Tiger”-remains compelling, even in a project as otherwise mediocre as this. I think they also do a fairly decent job of portraying how torn Michael was during this era between his desire for solo stardom and guilt over abandoning the family act, a guilt compounded by Joe who reminds him in one of the more harrowing reenactments, “This was all for you.” They also do a fairly decent job in acknowledging how racism in the industry impacted Michael’s early success, with the infamous Grammy snubbing of Off the Wall and its one pathetic nomination for Michael in the Best Male R&B vocalist category. As they correctly point out, it is out of the ashes of this disappointment that comes Thriller, and Carvel Wallace is able to get in some enlightening commentary on how many still view Michael Jackson as an “urban artist” simply because of the color of his skin. But even here, they can’t resist taking their digs. Michael’s understandable anger and resentment against the obvious racism of the Grammy snub is branded merely as another indication of his “emotional immaturity.” Sadly, this objective seems ever present, undercutting almost every aspect of the narrative. Even as it moves into the creation of the great Thriller video, the film can’t resist the constant tug between Michael as eccentric boy genius on the one hand; a naive child on the other, and/or emerging “shape shifter” who is evolving into a ruthless and master manipulator of the media and his own image (never quite reconciling how someone supposedly so naive and emotionally stunted could accomplish such a feat). Again, it’s not a matter of denying that all of these conflicting elements are an integral essence of who Michael was, to greater or lesser degrees. But it has more to do with the particularly disturbing angle that these interpretations take. For example, instead of looking at the shape shifting element of Thriller as an example of Michael’s evolving artistry, it is treated merely as the prelude to his personal downfall, as he becomes ever more the clever showman who can shape shift between man and beast; between human and monster. Granted, this could be a fascinating discussion on one level, but here it is so very obvious that this is not going to lead to any kind of serious analysis of either Michael’s art or image, but as I stated, merely as a prelude to the possible sinistry that may have lurked just beneath the childlike exterior. In other words, the discussion of Thriller is cleverly disguised merely as a way of preparing viewers for the predictable controversy that will follow. As this segment comes to its close, our Martin Bashir soundalike assures us that Thriller, Michael’s greatest commercial success, will also be the very thing that destroys him. It’s a catchy bait line, but a flawed one. Michael wasn’t destroyed by Thriller; that is equivalent to saying he was destroyed by his own art. This becomes yet another cleverly disguised way of saying that Michael Jackson was ultimately responsible for the tragic downward spiral of his own life. Sure. It all begins and ends with the success that he himself willingly created. Again, I don’t think the filmmakers are denying that he was victimized time and again by manipulators and backstabbers, but at least part of the modus operandi seems to be in pointing out that all of the evil around him can somehow be traced back to Michael himself as the ultimate maestro standing at the nexus of his own self destruction.
Indeed, we no sooner get into the next ten minutes and already this theory is being born out. After having run through the impressive matriculation of Michael’s musical and professional life, we are reminded by our ominous “Batshit” sounding narrator that “while his mastery of pop muic and performance was divine, his mastery of himself was far more troubled.” I did enjoy hearing Vincent Paterson’s analysis of the Billie Jean video, but again, the narration intercepts with very puzzling and cryptic comments. If, for example, it can be acknowledged that “Billie Jean” is allowing us a glimpse into the “inner complexities” of Michael’s world, how can we on the other hand dismiss this great piece of complex work as coming from someone without a stable grip on the complexities of the adult world or adult relationships? Again, there is no real attempt to connect any of these dots; everything is simply thrown out for the viewer to make sense of as they see fit. Anyway, at this point I’m going to skip through a lot for the sake of time, as most of this segment simply recounts how the Motown 25 performance came about and its aftermath, all of it familiar territory for any Michael Jackson fan (nothing really bad here, but nothing new, either).
The segment begins on a high note. Michael has been fully vindicated for the Off the Wall snub, winning a total of eight Grammys for Thriller including Album of the Year. This time, he had created something so phenomenal that it simply couldn’t be ignored by the industry. But as any fan knows too well, Michael Jackson’s life was one of incredible peaks and unfathomable lows. During this same period comes the infamous Pepsi commercial accident that will affect the quality of the rest of his life. This incident is often portrayed as a kind of defining moment in Michael’s life, a clean division between the exuberant, clean cut youth and the “tortured” adult who would become dependent on painkillers and the desire for anything to numb the physical and emotional pain. In terms of story and narrative, it marks the perfect dramatic catalyst, and it serves that function no less here. In truth, it is actually one of the more compelling moments in the documentary and is handled at least somewhat tastefully. For the casual viewer who may not know very much about the details of the accident or its horrendous aftermath for Michael; the series of painful surgeries; the balloon implants placed into his head, the disfiguring third degree scars, this segment is at least informative and factual. Of course, it also becomes another excuse to harp on the increasing “disconnect” between Michael the private person and Michael Jackson, the image, with much being made over his request to be photographed even on the stretcher with his white glove on.
The only difference is that I think this is a segment where the discussion is at least somewhat warranted. Clearly, this incident was a prime example of Michael’s obsession with image, and it was clear that the line between his public and private persona was becoming increasingly blurred. I don’t fault the filmmakers for desiring to explore this territory, but I think part of the problem here (which is true for any MJ documentary and not entirely anyone’s fault) is that no justice can really be done to such a very complex topic within the confines of an hour and a half, and certainly not when dished out as merely ten second sound bites. As has so often held true, the very scope of Michael Jackson’s life and complexities makes any project like this doomed to a certain amount of failure from the outset. Just as with so many other projects, both better and worse than this one, there simply isn’t enough room or space in which to cram both all of the events of Michael’s life and career and to delve into any kind of detailed psychoanalysis that would provide any kind of satisfactory closure to these kinds of questions (indeed, as is so often the case with most Michael Jackson documentaries, it simply becomes a convoluted mess that only succeeds in raising far more questions about the man and the artist than it can answer). Anyway, the film wastes little time in establishing the obvious connection: The accident leads to painkillers; painkillers lead to addiction; it all starts a chain reaction of destruction that will take several decades to reach its ultimate, tragic resolution. And again, the objective is one disturbingly bent on painting Michael as the one in control of his own demise. Sure, he was a victim of a horrific accident, the filmmakers seem to be telling us, but he also made a series of deliberate choices, beginning with the choice to swallow those pills. It is those deliberate choices, they want us to know, that will slowly “destroy” him, just as he was “destroyed” by the success he himself created with his own music.
To compound the poor attempt at psychoanalysis, the discussion of the burn surgeries (which is at least fair and accurate) leads into, and quickly deteriorates into, a discussion of cosmetic surgery. Yep, you had to know they were going to “go there” as well, and the discussion is lamely predictable. Our creepy “Batshit” narrator states, without the batting of an equivocal eye, that plastic surgery becomes for Michael a kind of “self harm.” It’s the same old bs where insecurity and body dysmorphic disorder blurs the fine line with the obsession for some perceived perfection. Honestly, I am weary with the subject as most fans are, but if we just have to go there, it would certainly be far more innovative and enlightening to entertain some other possible theories other than the usual “he hated his looks/wanted to change his race, or as is stated here, “an external manifestation of the confusion he was feeling about who he truly was.” For example, I would love to see a project that would be daring enough to take on the topic of how Michael used appearance, in the same way that David Bowie and countless other artists have used evolving looks, to create their artistic personas and alter egos (I’m convinced that Michael’s roster of evolving looks owed as much to his artistic aesthetics as to any perceived insecurities). What if it stemmed, not from deliberate self confusion, but a purposeful desire to confuse his audience? Equally fascinating would be a discussion of the disconnect between the media perception of a “freak” vs a fandom who never stopped desiring him as a sexual object (however, in this case, at least, we already know that any serious discussion of Michael as an object of sexual desire is not going to be entertained, anyway). It’s not that the discussions of insecurity and obsession for perfection have no validity, but my point is just that there are so many more interesting places that they could go if they’re going to bring up the topic of Michael’s appearance and cosmetic surgery, but admittedly, perhaps, these are discussions beyond the project’s scope. So all we’re left with is the usual banal explanations and surface discussions.
Maybe one day someone will be innovative and far sighted enough to take on those discussions in a film project. But that time hasn’t come yet, least of all here. Besides, it’s pretty difficult to take any discussion of Michael’s cosmetic surgery seriously when the best they can do is compare a youthful photo of the real Michael Jackson to a close-up of the garishly made-up face of Earnest Valentino! Duh, of course the comparisons are going to look a million miles apart when one is a pic of the real Michael Jackson, pre-vitiligo, and the other is a Michael Jackson impersonator in very bad makeup! Oh, but it gets even better. Next, we cut back to Mark Lester stating assertively that Michael was trying to reconstruct his face to become the Disney version of Peter Pan. (Huge eye roll moment). To further compound the potential confusion of casual viewers, the only mention of vitiligo is a brief clip of Michael’s response to Oprah Winfrey, but the only thing offered in the way of follow up commentary is that Michael “became defensive” at no longer being able to play on his terms” (whatever that is supposed to mean). It’s left to Jennifer Batten to even bring up the topic of artist reinvention and its necessity in the pop music world, but her comments are then edited to segue directly into a scene that depicts a very devious Michael as “play[ing] with the press” by intentionally manipulating the Elephant Man and hyperbaric chamber stories. They state, in fact, that Michael intentionally spread these rumors, as if the tabloid media itself played no hand whatsoever. The clip ends with our “Batshit” narrator stating that it was more “schoolboy prank than sinister manipulation” but then lingers on a close-up of Earnest Valentino grinning deviously. So now another seed has been planted. The media’s crucifixion of Michael Jackson stemmed from his own cunning, and he was at least as much to blame as the tabloids themselves. What the film fails to address, however, is just why and how the media came gunning for him with such relentless ferocity from that point forward. Even for a celebrity who courted publicity, I think few would argue that what was done to Jackson was beyond the pale, and the media’s refusal to take an iota of responsibility in that crucifixion, as evidenced here, remains an unforgivable blot. This is not just a theory of the document’s intent. They state it explicitly: “As Michael watched his carefully created image disintegrate, he struggled to understand that it was he who had facilitated it.” (It’s worth mentioning that this quote is inserted over an image from the Earth Song video, thus taking one of Michael’s most powerful political statements out of context and manipulating it into a mere image of a man sorrowful over the loss of his image).
This segment picks up with the move to Neverland. Here, again, the narrative is more predictable cliche’ about Michael’s need to escape and recreate the childhood he never had. We know this was at least part of the MO behind what Michael created at Neverland, but Michael’s home was so much more than that. It was an oasis of serenity in a chaotic world; 2700 sprawling acres built on Native American sacred land; a place for inspiration and meditation. They do acknowledge that Michael’s goal was to make the place a haven for sick children, but the primary narrative of this segment is that of an overgrown, spoiled kid who, because he now apparently had no one to tell him “no,” could indulge in any kind of excess he craved. Not only is the tone here irritatingly patronizing (assuming that a thirty-year-old man somehow still needs a daddy figure in his life to tell him “no”) but also is much too open ended in allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the exact kind of debauchery that this unrestrained excess and access to children could include (understand they are not explicitly implying guilt, but nor is there any given reason for viewers’ minds to not automatically jump to those conclusions). All this does, essentially, is to set the stage for another favorite media cliche’-the unrestrained child/man, freely indulging his whims and desires, who wants to surround himself with kids and have endless sleepovers. Again, the one spot of salvation is Jennifer Batten’s commentary. She states that Michael was an avid reader who took joy in teaching the children and introducing them to the wonders of the world. Thanks to her, there is at least some balance to the commentary but given the overall impression that the segment creates, I’m not sure it is enough. This leads us into the introduction to Jordan Chandler, and from here it goes from bad to worse.
Jordan Chandler is portrayed as if he were simply one of many random kids allowed to “sleep over” at Neverland. No mention is made of the circumstances under which they met, or of Michael’s association with Jordan’s parents (perhaps they assumed these details were irrelevant; however, they are anything but). I understand there is only so much that can be crammed into a 94-minute documentary, and they can’t be expected to go into minute detail about everything, but to cut corners with something this important to Michael’s story is unforgivable, especially if the main point is supposed to be an expose’ of how Michael Jackson was destroyed by betrayal.
But again, the purpose here is definitely not in “proving” or “disproving” guilt, and that remains one of the most troubling aspects of even the most well intentioned projects. We can say that the worst of the lot simply presumes guilt, but even the more sympathetic projects are more than content to simply leave the viewer to draw their own conclusions, without elaborating on any of the hardcore evidence that actually supports his innocence. What’s worse, they often use heavy handed innuendo and editing to make the possibility of guilt seem more likely (in reality, these kinds of scenes are meant to serve as titillation, but the damage they do is just as much as if they came out and proclaimed straight up guilt). This film is no exception. A particularly disturbing reenactment has Michael and Jordan playing games in the bedroom, indulging in a pillow fight, etc and finally deciding it’s time for bed, we see the adult Michael slowly and ominously closing the bedroom door. It doesn’t take adding two and two to assume what most viewers would make of that scene, no matter how much the commentators wax about him simply wanting to be a big kid. That has always been, and remains, the weakest defense imaginable. There is only a brief reenactment of Evan Chandler confronting Michael, and as usual in every film that only does a half ass job of reporting on the Chandler case, poor Evan Chandler is simply portrayed as a concerned father, understandably upset and outraged over what he suspects is going on with his son. Predictably, there is no mention of Evan’s extortion attempt; no mention of his infamous recording to Barry Schwartz in which he as good as confessed how he was setting Michael up; no mention of what a psychotic personality Chandler actually was; no mention that Jordan Chandler’s description of Michael’s genitals proved false; no mention that the financial settlement did not preclude a criminal trial from taking place; not even an explanation for why Michael agreed to settle in the first place.
Why Don’t We Get Evan Chandler-Concerned Father-Stating These Words?
With all of this information simply left hanging, casual viewers are no more educated on the circumstances of the Chandler allegations than they would have been before, other than perhaps knowing the names of the parties involved. If before I would have given the film at least a C-for effort, here it fails completely. And I’ll just say for the record that the one thing we don’t need at this point are more projects like this that are simply going to further muddy those waters. The segment ends with Evan determinedly whisking Jordan away from Neverland while a pathetically dejected looking Michael pleads, “Don’t go; please don’t go.” (Chalk up one more huge eye rolling moment). So let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture here. Supposedly again this is a project about Michael being betrayed over and over, but what we actually see depicted here (as is done repeatedly throughout the film) is that it is really Michael’s own eccentric behavior that has led to his loss and desertion. Other parties, including the Chandlers, are simply helpless bystanders caught up in the vortex of Michael’s own tragically scarred psyche. It’s a pattern that doesn’t stop here.
This segment picks up with marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, and is predictably awful but with one saving grace: At least the romance and marriage is treated as being genuine. In some ways, that is probably a huge leap from what we might have gotten ten years ago from a project like this. But I had to laugh when our “Batshit” narrator in his heavy handed delivery announced, somberly as a church service, that this was perhaps Michael’s “one shot” to have “a real lover.” There is a somewhat sweet courtship reenactment but for anyone who has seen the just as awful otherMan in the Mirror flick, it is a scene that could have come just as easily from it. Of course, there is no hint of the MJ that Lisa Marie actually described as having been attracted to-the guy who flirted voraciously, who talked dirty over shots of Crown Royal and impressed her with his “real guy” normalcy. Instead, this is the same whispery man/child who waxes poetic about her smile over a romantic dinner, but at least the scene does culminate in a kiss, insinuating that-gasp!-Michael is actually going to make love to a woman.
But from here it spirals downhill. They keep saying that Michael was insistent on having a family with Lisa (which is true) but the disintegration of the marriage quickly becomes a one-sided affair. It is Michael’s manipulative, demanding ego that comes between them; it is Michael who humiliates poor, poor Lisa time and again; it is Michael who insists on “seeing other kids behind Lisa’s back” and, finally, it is Lisa who walks out simply because she can’t take anymore; that Michael is “too much to handle” and should never be a parent because “he needs a parent himself.” Again, this is an insult to every fan who knows anything about that marriage. Yes, it was stormy and yes, both parties were at fault. But why lay all the blame for its failure squarely at Michael’s feet? What about Lisa lying about the birth control pills? (Talk about betrayal!). What about the four-year affair they carried on after the marriage, as she pursued him relentlessly for a reconciliation? (None of this is speculation, since Lisa confirmed it in her last Oprah interview, but instead of using that interview, they instead dredge up that horrific 2005 Oprah interview also featuring Priscilla Presley; the one I like to call the “bitch fest”). The major difference between the two is that the 2005 interview came fresh out of the anger, hurt and frustration of the relationship, whereas the 2010 interview came out of a place of maturity and intense reflection on what her feelings for Michael actually were. I’m sure the filmmakers were aware of this later interview, but purposely chose to ignore it because the 2005 interview more closely fit their agenda.
Anyway, the entire mess ends predictably with Lisa storming out and a dejected, pathetic Michael sitting on the stairs begging, “Please don’t go.” Once again, the message is loud and clear: Michael’s own irresponsible behavior has cost him his “one shot” at true love and a real family.
As you can no doubt guess, it doesn’t get any better from here. Considering how much of Michael’s epic story we still have to cover (marriage to Debbie Rowe; the births of the children; Invincible; the feud with Sony; Martin Bashir; Gavin Arvizo; the Trial of the Century; exile; return; AEG and This Is It; Conrad Murray and death) the film passes over all of it relatively quickly and with very little depth, much less any pause for real consideration about the forces coming together that would be the true cause of his “downfall.” In fact, by this point, huge chunks of Michael Jackson’s story remain untold. All of the albums he has recorded since Thriller have been pretty much ignored (even Bad only gets a passing nod; as for Dangerous, HIStory, Blood on the Dance Floor and Invincible they might as well have never existed!). Major accomplishments and career coups, such as the 1993 Superbowl performance, are completely ignored. They state that Michael was too naive to “sense danger,” insinuating the betrayal of Martin Bashir with the Living With Michael Jackson documentary, and yet never mention the underhanded tactics Bashir used to get the results he wanted with that documentary (and again, considering that a goodly percentage of this film is comprised of Bashir’s footage, one can understand why he is given a free pass here). The entire Gavin Arvizo allegation and trial is passed over far too quickly, and with all the same problematic flaws as the handling of the Chandler allegations. Curiously, no mention is made of Tom Sneddon and his relentless vendetta. As usual, all parties as well as all factual circumstances of the cases are handled with kid gloves, and no real accusing finger is pointed at anyone save Michael Jackson himself (who isn’t acting maliciously, let’s be reminded; he simply can’t help the fact that he is damaged goods).
Essentially, viewers are getting the bare bone facts but little else; if anything, the film is more than content to merely summarize events. But this is nothing that any informed viewer couldn’t get by simply going to Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia, and the commentators, for all good intentions, simply can’t compensate for the lack of real informative material. It’s a given that Michael’s physical and mental health was worn down by the trial. We get that. But what viewers really need to know-and perhaps want to know-is just how and why Michael was found “Not Guilty” on all counts. Once again, there is no attempt made to delve into any real evidence. Either the viewer accepts that Michael was innocent, or continues to believe he was a guilty man who “got off” due to his celebrity status. There is no reason given here for any on the fence viewer to change their mind.
The entire series of events leading up to This Is It and June 25th, 2009 are barely scraped, with Conrad Murray becoming almost a side player. Much more emphasis is naturally placed on Michael’s own “addiction” to sedatives to drown his own troubles. In one of the most unforgivably egregious errors of the entire film, the infamous audio tape of a drugged Michael slurring to Conrad Murray about how “I hurt”-the audio tape secretly recorded by Conrad Murray in one of the ultimate acts of betrayal, and played at trial as evidence against Murray-is said to be a phone conversation with Murray. This is the kind of unethical error that is unforgivable for a documentary because it is (whether intentionally or not) distorting truth. To state that this was a phone conversation between Michael and Murray detracts from the actual fact that this was a doctor secretly recording his oblivious patient, thus violating the rights of his patient in the most vile manner possible, and for no obvious purpose other than perhaps future blackmail or to strike a deal with tabloids. Again, for a documentary that proposes as its main agenda how Michael was repeatedly betrayed by the people around him, you don’t get a more golden opportunity to prove it than with that incident, and yet they completely miss the boat on that one, alleviating Murray from all culpability by passing it off as merely an innocent phone conversation that Michael initiated by phoning Murray up. And, of course, this factual error covers yet another of Murray’s violations, by totally ignoring that the very reason Michael was in such a state was due to having already received a massive dose of Propofol at Murray’s own hands! No, by this logic, it makes it sound like poor, poor Michael simply drugged himself up on some sedatives and then decided it was a good time to ring up his friend Conrad Murray and “spill” about his life.
In One Of The Most Egregious Factual Errors Of All, They State That This Recording of Michael Was A Phone Conversation Between Himself and Conrad Murray, Implying That Michael Phoned Murray In A Drugged State. No Mention Is Made Of The Fact That This Was A Conversation Conducted In Person, In Which Murray Unethically, Secretly Recorded His Patient-After Administering The Drugs Himself!
Oh gosh, I could go on but at this point the film simply unravels to its predictable and disastrous end. Michael dies. Granted, the final shot which is of the actual memorial and features Paris’s now famous and emotional speech is touching, and it does succeed in bringing the narrative satisfactorily full circle-the man who never had a childhood and so desperately wanted to give back a childhood to others has had that legacy cemented by his tearful, grieving daughter who proclaims him “the best daddy you could ever imagine.” Here I won’t fault the well intended sentiment, but for a documentary, it still leaves too many troubling holes unfilled.No mention is made, by the way, of anything that came of Conrad Murray afterward, not even the fact that he was convicted of manslaughter. It is as if with the end of Michael’s existence simply comes the culmination of his own, tragic story, brought on mostly by his own damaged sense of entitlement and the usual cliches’ about the burdens of fame. In looking back over the whole of this documentary, what’s left out is every bit as interesting-and puzzling-as what is left in. Michael’s great artistry and impact on music is discussed, but not with any real sense of depth or new insight (it simply isn’t that type of documentary). His sex symbol status is simply ignored. Some of the most major accomplishments of his career, such as the purchase and ownership of the Sony/ATV catalog, rendering him one of the most powerful figures in the music industry, is curiously ignored as well. Was such a glaring omission due to time constraints, or could it have more to do with the fact that this wouldn’t jibe with the image they were determined to project of Michael Jackson as a naive and childish man who would never be able to make such a savvy business move? (Also curiously, the fact that this catalog ownership became the proverbial albatross around his neck, one that exacerbated his fears of betrayal from those around him as well as providing ample motivation for many of those betrayals,is simply omitted as well).
What little we are left with has unfortunately become an all too familiar and, as I’ve already stated, well worn narrative, and I’m sure that some readers by now are still questioning as to why this particular documentary has been worth such a detailed analysis. Mainly, it is because I think it bears questioning as to why the media is so persistent on selling this very particular and limited narrative of Michael Jackson and his story to the public; why the particular insistence on selling, over and over, the version of an emasculated man/child who never grew up, who remained emotionally stunted (to the point that even his most monumental artistic accomplishments are usually more credited to his “mentors” like Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy) and why the perpetual insistence on continuously casting his story as simply one more celebrity tragedy? As I will stress again, I do not deny for a moment that Michael Jackson had a tragic life. This was a guy abused in childhood, who never knew a normal existence. Did that leave its scars? Of course it did! Did that impact his adult perceptions of the world? Of course it did, but I would daresay probably to no less or greater extent than any adult who has had to compensate for a lost childhood. The excesses of Michael’s life, for what they were, were no greater or less than many young musicians who suddenly find themselves awash in fame and riches at an age before they are truly capable of responsibility (insert here most any rock and roll or hip hop artist you can think of who became enormously wealthy before the age of 25). Michael inherited all of the same problems that all child stars inherit to some degree; he grappled with all of the same excesses and temptations that all musicians must, at some point, grapple with. As I am writing this, the tragic news of Chris Cornell’s recent passing is still headline news, and I see much of the same media strategy being played out: At first they mourn and honor; then comes the tearing down. Somehow, there is always a way to place the blame squarely on the performer’s shoulders, with no thought to the enormous internal and external pressures that these people actually face on a daily basis (I am still, as of this writing, grappling with the shock of having just seen Chris Cornell perform only days before his death, and how fine and in good spirits he seemed).
But to paint Michael Jackson’s life, over and over again, as nothing more than a modern tragedy, is a huge disservice. It is a disservice to the life he actually lived. It is a disservice to the enormous contributions he made, both to music and to the world through his enormous humanitarian efforts (which, to no surprise, are also omitted completely from this film). Usually there is almost always at least some lip service given to how Michael’s wealth and fame made him a target for greed, but inevitably, as happens here and so often in all other projects, the real culprit always comes back to the “man in the mirror” and that apparent seed of self destruction that was planted long ago in Gary, Indiana when a talented but strong-willed little boy was first struck by an angry, demanding father.
The problem is that this narrative, one so loved and cherished by the media because it makes good copy, is not the end all of the story. But it’s a narrative that alleviates a lot of responsibility from other parties. The media gets a reprieve because, after all, Michael was the one manipulating them, and should have known better. The Chandlers, Arvizos, Tom Sneddon, etc all get reprieves because, after all, well, if Michael had been acting like a grown-up instead of having sleep overs with kids, then by golly, none of this would have happened. Conrad Murray gets a reprieve because, well, clearly Michael was a drug addict who voluntarily put himself in that position.
And for those who will come back saying I am merely excusing Michael’s behaviors and trying to shift all the blame onto other parties and factors, that isn’t true, either. But there is nothing wrong with advocating for balance, fairness, and most importantly, accuracy. A documentary can manipulate just as easily by the facts they choose to omit or ignore as by what they choose to include, and from the start, the agenda of this particular project is all too clear. For whatever reasons, it continues to be of vital importance to certain parties that Michael’s story is portrayed in as simplistic a manner as possible, keeping him ultimately just the way they want him-emasculated, weak, non-threatening to white male superiority, immature and ever the victim. This continues to be a matter of concern, especially with so many upcoming MJ projects slated including the upcoming Lifetime film Searching For Neverland, which I will also be reviewing after its Monday night airing. Navi, the other famous MJ tribute artist appearing in that flick, has already issued a public statement condemning Valentino’s participation in this project, but it remains to be seen whether his own project is going to be any better (I can only say for now that the previews seem decent, but we’ll know more come Monday night). Clearly, these misrepresentations are continuing for a reason. Partly (perhaps even mostly) it is laziness. It’s easier to present an already pre-packaged stereotype than to err on the side of new insight or to research source material that might actually challenge some of these notions. For better or worse, most of the public thinks they know by now what Michael Jackson was like. They envision the soft-spoken man/child who never really grew up, or they have bought into the more sinister “Wacko Jacko” representations. From media perceptions, they have bought into the cliche’ of a talented but flawed and tragic figure, charmingly eccentric but ultimately out of touch with reality-“textbook weird,” as Sean Lennon recently stated. What most fail to realize is that this figure, too, is a myth, one that has been every bit as carefully crafted by the media as Michael, in turn, helped create it. Unfortunately, no documentary or film project, yet, has been daring enough to challenge these perceptions or to penetrate the myth. And now, with Michael gone, it has become easier than ever to simply further cement the same old misperceptions, rather than challenging them. And sadly, most filmmakers remain more obsessed with either salacious innuendo or in perpetuating the myth they have themselves partially created.
Another problematic factor is simply the sheer scope of Michael’s life. To fully do justice to any aspect of it almost requires a full documentary unto itself. To really understand the forces that went down, one needs an entire documentary just on the Chandler allegations alone; one needs an entire documentary on the Arvizo trial; we need an entire documentary on the events leading up to June 25th and their aftermath. And, needless to say, we need at least the scope of a full documentary to truly appreciate what Michael accomplished as a musician, dancer, humanitarian and philanthropist. This documentary is plagued by the very thing that has hampered so many projects-too much story to tell, and too little time and space to tell any of it adequately.
That’s the forgivable part. But what is harder to forgive is the agenda, ultimately, to portray Michael once again as simply the naive yet manipulative master orchestrator of his own self destruction. To do so is still only telling half his story. Perhaps one day there will be a filmmaker brave enough to take on the real Michael Jackson, to lift him beyond the burden of victimhood and caricature and to tell his real story, with no holds barred. Until then, the best bet may be to simply stick with those documentaries that focus on what Michael Jackson did best-his music.